I'm writing this post about an hour before my University of Virginia Cavaliers take the court for their opening game in this year's NCAA basketball tournament. This has been a dream season for the Cavs, and their incredibly successful regular season pretty much come out of nowhere. In fact, the team only started receiving national attention about a month or two ago after flying under the radar for most of the season. I caught my first glimpse of the team a few weeks ago when we were hosting highly-rated Syracuse and pulled off an impressive upset win. As I watched the action, I was taken aback when the announcer mentioned the name of UVA's first-year guard, London Perrantes.     

London was a student in my third grade class ten years ago in Santa Monica, CA, and I was thrilled to discover that he had made it to the highest level of college basketball. I was even more excited that he was playing for my alma mater. Small world.

I was so impressed with London's poise and leadership that I wanted to contact him. After searching for him on Twitter, I actually found his father and sent him a message congratulating him on his son's terrific first year. He immediately responded by thanking me for encouraging his son to be a leader and nurturing the leadership potential I saw in him at the time.

This wonderful exchange of messages reminded me that teachers encourage children in a variety of ways all the time. We don't, however, always get to see the results of these efforts. We may, for example, have encouraged a struggling 4th grader to take school more seriously, yet have no idea that the same child became an A-student in high school. We plant seeds. That's what we do. Sometimes we see them grow into something special; other times we don't. In this case I was fortunate to see a former student blossom in a very public forum, and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to be a small contributing factor to that success.

My main point with this post is to encourage you to keep planting seeds with your students. Encourage them to be leaders, readers, writers, musicians, and painters. These efforts pay off. We may not always be able to observe the fruits of our labor, and that can be frustrating at times, but the effort is worth it. Be on the lookout for the positive traits and aptitudes your students show and find the time to acknowledge these assets privately. When enough people provide enough support and encouragement to children, great things can happen.
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Friday, 14 March 2014 00:54

Add Impact to Your Classroom Lessons

I recently read a fantastic book that I think has particular relevance for teachers, and I wanted to pass along this recommendation. Chip and Dan Heath's Made to Stick starts with the idea that every day people all over the world are trying to communicate their ideas to others and have them be remembered. These messages, for example, may be advertisements that companies send to consumers, corporate strategy that executives send to their employees, or lessons that teachers and parents present to children.

The authors make the point that some messages tend to "stick" with their audience while others don't. Subway's advertising campaign involving Jared, for example, resonated with the American public while its "7 Under 6" campaign was far less successful. To explain why some messages stick and others don't, the Heaths present six criteria of "stickiness." Specifically, they offer six qualities that messengers can use to make their messages more likely to be remembered and acted upon.

These qualities are: 1) simplicity, 2) unexpectedness, 3) concreteness, 4) credibility, 5) emotional, and 6) stories. Since reading this book, I have made an effort to incorporate these six qualities into my teaching, and the early results have been promising. In fact, the book inspired the "31st Student" idea that I recently shared with you. I'm also working on some new "sticky" classroom ideas that I hope to share with you in the near future.

In short, the book is a terrific read full of interesting examples that can serve as a catalyst for educators who are looking to add their impact to their instruction. You can find the book on amazon.
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Friday, 28 February 2014 01:00

A Wonderful Daily Opportunity

Every Friday as part of our morning routine, my students and I review the class mission statement we created during the first week of the school year. Because the document is a few paragraphs long, we read and discuss only a small part of it each week. This past Friday morning, we talked about the sentence: "We don’t pay attention only to our work, we also pay attention to everyone’s feelings."

As I was listening to the children share their ideas, examples, and interpretations with the rest of the group, something occurred to me, and I volunteered my thought at the conclusion of the activity. I told everyone that unlike people who go to work each day in their individual offices or cubicles and function independently for most or all of the day, we arrive in a classroom where we are constantly in the presence of other people.

Of course, this situation presents its share of challenges, but it also presents its share of opportunities. I emphasized that every day every one of us has a wonderful chance to make someone else's day better. Maybe we try to cheer up a friend who's having a rough start to his day. Maybe we offer assistance to a neighbor who is struggling with today's math work. Maybe we share part of our lunch with someone who left theirs at home. Regardless of the specific gesture we make, the point is that we consistently look out for one another and strive to contribute to the betterment of the group.

Discussions such as these have a powerful team-building effect and start our day on a positive note. They remind students of the potential we each have to impact the learning of others and also highlight the fact that even though succeeding academically is important, what's more important is that everyone feels comfortable in class, enjoys the learning process, and knows that others care about them.
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On Super Bowl Sunday, I shared a teaching tip inspired by the Seattle Seahawks' "12th Man" concept. In a nutshell, the fans in Seattle are so loud, have such a powerful presence in the stadium, and give the team such a formidable home-field advantage that it's almost as if the Seahawks have an extra player on the field - a 12th man.

I first saw the potential of applying the "12th Man" concept to the classroom a few weeks back while my 30 students were studying fractions. I wanted to call the children's attention to the fact that learning how to find a common denominator was an incredibly important skill to master because it would enable them to add and subtract fractions with unlike denominators, find equivalent fractions, and make comparisons. In short, I wanted to make a big deal out of finding a common denominator.

Very dramatically, I announced that this skill is so important and will have such a powerful presence in our room in the coming weeks that it's almost as if (you guessed it) we have a 31st student among us. After hearing of the "12th Man" in Seattle, the kids immediately loved the idea of having a 31st student in our classroom and loved the connection between an academic concept and a real-life example from the world of sports. For the rest of our fractions study, every time we returned to the skill of finding a common denominator, the kids paid extra close attention to what I was teaching, and their proficiency with the skill was impressive.

That's what I was going for with the "31st Student" concept. I wanted a novel way to give special attention to one concept so that children would form an emotional connection with that concept and appreciate its significance. And that's what happened. I knew that finding a common denominator, though, would eventually run its course as a featured idea, and the novelty would wear off. So this past week, as the kids began to publish their California History Research Projects, I introduced our second "31st student" - professional publishing. At the time I announced our new "31st student," I also unveiled a special surprise - our new class flag modeled after the one hanging in Seattle during home games. Every day this past week, when it was time to begin our Writing Workshop period, we would wave the flag, and I would call their attention to the various aspects of professional publishing that I wanted everyone to remember throughout the week.

Once again, the novelty and sheer fun associated with the "31st Student" concept raised the level of attention that the kids paid to their publishing, and their books look absolutely beautiful. Once this project is behind us, I will search for our next "31st Student" and continue doing so for the remainder of the school year. Because this idea is so flexible, I can make our "31st Student" an academic concept, a habit of character, or any other valuable idea I want to emphasize, and I can keep the idea going for as long as we need before shifting to the next. I will also solicit ideas from the kids. Consider adding a "31st Student" flag or poster to your classroom if you're looking for a fun, simple way to highlight the importance of a single idea. 
 
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Friday, 31 January 2014 00:35

A Super Bowl-Themed Teaching Tip (Tip #112)

Typically, the Teaching Tips I share on this site feature information and strategies that I have used with my students for many years. Every now and then, however, I like to present new ideas that I'm currently in the process of developing and that are still a bit raw. In these cases I welcome your feedback, and perhaps we can collaborate to strengthen the original idea. This past Tuesday I had a brainstorm, and since this idea happened to connect to the world of professional football, I thought this would be the perfect week to post it.

Broncos fans, please don't be alarmed. I come in peace. Though this tip does refer to an aspect of the Seattle Seahawks franchise, I am not promoting one team over the other. (In fact, Peyton Manning is one of my favorite players of all time.) If you follow professional football, you may know that over the past couple seasons Seattle has had the best home record in the NFL, and a huge part of this home-field advantage stems from the fact that Seahawk fans are incredibly loud during the games and make it very difficult for the visiting players to communicate with one another. Because of the advantage the fans provide, the crowd has been dubbed the "12th man." In other words, the fans are so important to the team's success and have such a strong presence, it's almost as if the Seahawks are fielding 12 players versus the other team's 11. There's even a "12th man" flag that flies over the field during the games.

Back to last Tuesday. My students had just started learning how to add and subtract fractions with unlike denominators. In order to do this, of course, they need to find a common denominator. We were about to close out the day's lesson and head to recess. We had about three minutes left in the period. As I was working through one last problem on the board, I told them that finding a common denominator is also a helpful strategy when comparing and ordering fractions. Being new to teaching fourth grade this year, it dawned on me that this single skill of finding a common denominator has multiple uses and is an indispensable asset for young math students to possess. I wanted to make a big deal about just how important this skill was. I wanted to give it extra attention. A light bulb went off in my mind, and I stopped the lesson. Immediately, my mind traveled to Seattle, and I thought about the 12th man. Quickly, I told my kids a story about the meaning of the 12th man to the Seattle Seahawks organization, and I decided that our class needed its own version.

I then declared, dramatically, that the ability to find a common denominator is so valuable and will have such a strong presence in our classroom in the coming weeks that it's almost like having another person with us. That strategy is, you guessed it, our 31st student. The kids immediately liked this idea. My goal in establishing the "31st student" was to get kids' attention and call their attention to an important idea, and that's what it did. I learned a few years ago from my friend Jeff Haebig that emotions drive attention, and attention drives learning. The concept of the "31st student" created an emotional connection with my students and caused them to pay more attention to this week's math lessons. Of course, the kids still need to practice and master the ability to find a common denominator, but the stage had been set for that learning, and enthusiasm increased because of the novelty of the "31st student" concept.

After school that day, I realized that the "31st student" idea has the potential to help us all year because every few weeks we can change it to keep it fresh and focused on our current learning. Once our study of fractions concludes, I can pick another core academic skill to be our new 31st student. I could also make kindness, honesty, or another habit of character our 31st student anytime the need arises. The concept is flexible enough to meet a variety of needs that may present themselves over the remainder of the school year. We can even have a designated place on the wall to post that week's 31st student as a visual reminder.

I will keep you updated as the "31st student" idea grows. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. In the meantime, I need to find a website where I can purchase our "31" classroom flag.
 
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In this post I share an incredibly useful piece of teaching advice I learned from my friend and classroom management expert Angela Watson. (Check out her book The Cornerstone on amazon.) At the beginning of each school year, Watson tells her students that their actions and choices in the classroom influence her actions and choices as a teacher. In my experience, this announcement takes many children by surprise because they tend to think that all major class decisions are made by the teacher and that they really don't have a role in affecting those decisions. This approach to classroom management gives kids the incentive to show great judgment because the better judgment they show, the more responsibility they will have in determining the direction of the class.

For example, assume Katie and Allison wish to be desk partners. Using Watson's approach, we would let the kids give it a try. If they are able to focus on their work and use their time well, then they would be permitted to remain neighbors. In other words, we provide the opportunity, and the students have the incentive and the responsibility to make it work. Here's another example. Assume that students in my class work independently on all their class activities. One student, however, makes the suggestion that we should start working with partners during math time. Instead of saying no because we have never done this type of cooperative learning before, I would give it a shot to see how it goes, and their actions would determine the extent to which cooperative learning becomes a regular feature of classroom life.

For the past two years, during the first half hour of the first day of school, I have explicitly told my students that their actions and choices would influence mine. Pardon the pun, but this has become a "cornerstone" feature in my classroom, and the effect it has is immediate, positive, and lasting. Now, whenever my students have a suggestion about how our class should function, I (almost always) say yes and then give them the responsibility for making it work. Providing students with these opportunities is empowering and motivating.
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   As a general rule, I recommend that, as teachers, we try not to do things for children that they can do for themselves. Expecting students to do things for themselves develops independence and responsibility, and it furthers our efforts to develop self-directed learners. One example of this principle in action occurs each day when I walk with my students to the school cafeteria. When we arrive, I could easily grab our set of lunch cards and pass them out to the kids one at a time. Instead, I ask the first two students in line to get the cards and distribute them to their classmates. This may not seem like a big deal, but it encourages cooperation and promotes leadership, responsibility, and independence. When children do things like this throughout the day, these little moments add up to something substantial. Examples include cleaning the room thoroughly before they leave at the end of the day, carrying their own backpacks and other possessions to and from school, and managing their own supplies. Look for opportunities for your students to take on as much responsibility around the class as possible.
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